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The Last Mile Home

The Last Mile Home
The Last Mile Home
April 22, 2021   //   

By Kim Moore

For 73 years horse-racing spectators would flock to Portland Meadows, a racetrack in the north of the city. In its heyday of the 1970s, the track attracted thousands of visitors. It was also a venue for music concerts. Bands like Metallica, Pearl Jam and the Beach Boys played there.

But in a sign of the times, the racetrack closed in March 2019 after several years of dwindling attendance. The building was torn down. In its place Amazon has built a distribution and fulfilment center. The facility is part of the e-commerce company’s strategy to build warehouses close to urban areas to help deliver packages to customers more quickly and efficiently.

The rise of e-commerce is having a profound impact on cities’ land use and transportation infrastructure. Increasingly, consumers order more products online and expect faster deliveries. Online ordering has been underway for the past decade, but the coronavirus pandemic accelerated this trend within months.

Planners are realizing cities are not well designed to accommodate the transformation in urban freight that has come with this shift in internet shopping.

Industrial land for distribution centers, for example, has traditionally been located outside of urban centers because of the need for more space. But e-commerce has changed that. “We are seeing distribution centers closer to where people live and closer to the airports. That is a zoning and planning challenge,” says Margi Bradway, planning and development deputy director for Metro, the Portland metro area’s regional government.

The increase of delivery trucks entering dense urban areas requires the reallocation of space in downtown cores. Congestion, lack of pick-up and drop-off zones, and the increased public-safety hazards of having trucks close to pedestrians mean planners have to rethink transportation and land use in city centers. “There is only so much space for biking, walking, transit. You have the rise of Uber and Lyft, and now you have more deliveries,” says Bradway.

The World Economic Forum estimates that, without any intervention, the number of delivery vehicles in the largest 100 cities globally will increase by 36% by 2030. Emissions from delivery traffic will increase by 32% and congestion will rise by more than 21%.

City planners are taking action. Metro has just launched a study, likely to take 20 months, that will explore how freight comes into the Portland metro area. Bradway says the organization has “one of the best and new freight models in the nation,” which will allow it to track how different commodities enter the region.

“Freight has so many implications to transportation and the way we engage with businesses. It is important to know and plan for and be thoughtful about how freight moves around our system and the implications,” says Bradway.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation is also updating the city’s freight master plan, a policy guide designed to inform planners how to ensure Portland’s transportation network can support the projected increased demand for freight.

The 2040 Portland Freight Plan will take into account how the transportation system can move freight efficiently while meeting climate goals. It will also look at how the city can improve freight in a racially equitable way. This will involve bringing low-income people and communities of color into the discussions on planning. These communities disproportionately live in areas where air pollution from the movement of freight is concentrated.

The City of Portland and Metro have set greenhouse-gas emissions goals that inform transportation and land-use planning for freight. The Portland City Council has committed to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 and a 100% reduction by 2050.

Metro is required by law to follow a strategy to reduce the region’s greenhouse gases from cars and light trucks by at least 20% by 2035.

Meanwhile, freight transportation companies such as UPS and FedEx have their own greenhouse-gas reduction goals, which will necessitate a complete overhaul of how parcels are delivered in urban cores.

Portland’s economy is more dependent on freight movement than most other U.S. cities. The region has the third-highest percentage of total employment in the distribution and logistics sectors in the U.S.

The emergence of e-commerce has transformed how freight travels into the region. Just 10 years ago, most deliveries were done by long-haul trucks that would travel across the country on interstate highways. With the increase in e-commerce, most freight now comes through the Port of Portland and the Port of Vancouver.

From there it is taken to distribution centers before it is transferred onto smaller trucks that travel short distances on arterials and local streets to people’s homes and businesses.

This shift has led to an increase in vehicle miles traveled on arterials that carry freight and are located close to distribution centers. Vehicle miles traveled is transportation-planning speak for the amount of travel for all vehicles in a geographic region over a period of time.

About 50% of vehicle miles traveled by delivery companies are just to reach cities where they deliver the majority of packages. When they are in cities, they are driving for only 20% of the time. The rest of the time they are parked to carry out delivery.

Having a lot of trucks driving around and idling in traffic prevents cities meeting their climate goals. Freight is responsible for a large portion of diesel emissions. On-road diesel vehicles, including heavy trucks, account for 15% of diesel emissions in the Portland area. Trucks are responsible for 80% of those emissions.

The increase in trucks in dense urban areas is also a public-safety issue. The larger the vehicle, the more likely it is to cause severe injuries if it is involved in a traffic accident. Although collisions involving trucks were just 4% of total crashes in Portland between 2014 and 2018, 50% of those collisions resulted in death or serious injury.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a drop in overall vehicle miles traveled as many office workers stay at home because of physical-distancing requirements. It is not yet apparent whether the rise in e-commerce since the pandemic emerged in 2020 has led to an increase in greenhouse gases, says Bradway.

But the pandemic has led to complex shifts in freight movement. It has resulted in a decrease of large, consolidated deliveries to commercial businesses but a big uptick in smaller and more frequent parcel deliveries to residences.

One of the most efficient and environmentally friendly modes of transportation for the last-mile delivery of goods is e-cargo bikes. These electrically assisted cycles can carry around 400 pounds, and the larger ones can transport up to 800 pounds. The emissions-free vehicles are narrow enough that they can travel in cycle lanes and do not block traffic or require large parking spaces.

They are becoming a common mode of freight transportation in some European countries such as Germany, and several pilots have recently taken place in U.S. cities, including Portland.

In 2019 UPS partnered with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Portland State University to deliver packages by electric cargo bikes on the university campus. The pilot stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is not clear if the firm plans to restart the project. UPS declined to comment for this article.

One challenge freight companies face is the lack of regulations for cargo bikes as well as the lack of parking for these vehicles. “Even when a company does a cargo-bike pilot, they are not sure which permit to obtain to do the pilot,” says Giacomo Dalla Chiara, researcher at the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab.

“Very few cities are thinking about cargo-bike parking,” says Dalla Chiara. “Right now, in Seattle, a bike can go on the sidewalk. Would that be the same for a cargo bike? Where should they park? They are a commercial vehicle. Are they allowed to use commercial-zone parking or can they park on the sidewalk? This is a gray area the city is still working out.”

For cargo bikes to become a ubiquitous mode of transportation for freight, there also needs to be infrastructure in dense urban areas for bikes to pick up loads. Amanda Howell, project manager at Urbanism Next, an emerging-technology research outfit at the University of Oregon, says the lack of infrastructure for cargo bikes is a hurdle against widespread deployment.

One solution is the micro-hub — a small logistics facility close to customers where inventory can be stored and picked up for last-mile delivery by cargo bikes and people on foot.

“There is definitely interest in e-cargo bikes,” says Howell. “What you need for that are lots of micro-hubs that can serve as starting point. Cargo bikes have less capacity than a truck has — you need a centralized location where packages are brought, and then you need a hub for the bikes to come every day for that to take off. There are starting to be efforts of looking at where we could locate those.”

Several North American cities have experimented with micro-hubs. The city of Montreal recently converted a disused bus station in the city center into a micro-hub, where small and zero-emissions vehicles and bikes pick up goods to deliver to their final destinations.

The Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington is undertaking a micro-hub research project in Seattle that will measure the efficacy of having a logistics hub close to customers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the amount of unused commercial space in urban areas, creating opportunities for opening mini distribution and fulfillment centers in city centers. Metro is looking at the possibility of repurposing commercial real estate, such as empty office space, into small warehouses. “Coming out of the study, we may have recommendations such as changing office space into industrial,” says Bradway.

One private-sector company that is using underused space for logistics solutions is Reef Technology. The company owns thousands of parking lots in city centers, many of which have stood empty during the pandemic. Reef Technology has converted these underused lots into logistics facilities and neighborhood kitchens where food can be prepared, distributed and delivered.

In May last year, Reef Technology partnered with shipping-services firm DHL Express to pilot the use of electric-assist cargo bikes for deliveries in Miami. DHL uses a truck to deliver cargo containers to a Reef hub in the city center, where the containers are connected to e-cargo bikes for last-mile, inner-city deliveries. The pilot is part of DHL’s strategy to implement clean pick-up and delivery for 70% of its operations by 2025.

Cargo-bike delivery has been a feature of Portland’s food sector for several years. B-line Urban Delivery has delivered food to restaurants and grocery stores for several years. The company is based in the Redd on Salmon Street building in Portland’s Central Eastside.

B-line has a distribution and warehousing facility in the Redd building, a hub for the local food economy. B-line’s e-cargo bikes are loaded and unloaded at the site.

The company delivers produce by bike to supermarkets like New Seasons Market, Zupan’s and Market of Choice. It delivers food for small community-supported agriculture as well as for Organically Grown Company, a large wholesale distributor of produce.

It also offers cold and dry storage to small food vendors that do not have the scale to be served by large distributors. While most of its customers are food businesses, it delivers Office Depot supplies to city government departments and Portland State University.

B-line founder and CEO Franklin Jones says he has thought about expanding into micro-hubs around Portland. He has had discussions with Reef Technology, which owns parking lots in Portland, about partnering on cargo-bike delivery. “All you really need is an empty lot, a container and security, and you have a pop-up logistics hub,” he says.

Expanding micro-hubs across Portland should be seen as an economic-development tool, says Jones. He cites the Lloyd EcoDistrict, a nonprofit experimenting in sustainable neighborhood living in Portland’s Northeast, as an example of where a logistics micro-hub could be launched.

Other cities are experimenting with zero-emissions delivery zones. Santa Monica, Calif., is piloting such a zone — a 1-mile square radius in the city’s downtown where e-cargo bikes will be used to deliver packages. The two-year project, which runs through 2021, uses e-cargo bikes and electric vehicles to deliver food and parcels, and prioritizes zero-emissions loading zones.

The goal of the Santa Monica project, a partnership between the city and the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, is to provide a blueprint for cities to adopt zero-emissions delivery zones. It is the kind of pilot that the City of Portland and Metro could benefit from, says Jones.

Experts say the most effective way for cities to encourage cleaner and safer means of freight delivery is to restrict access to large diesel trucks entering dense urban areas and charge these vehicles for parking. This market-based solution would ultimately create financial incentives to carriers to change their approach to last-mile delivery.

“Pricing, if done well, could be very beneficial for freight and e-commerce deliveries: pricing of roadways and parking in periods and locations with high demand, so that there is less congestion and it is easy to travel and find parking for efficient deliveries,” says Miguel Figliozzi, founder and co-director of the Transportation Technology and People Lab at Portland State University.

Charging a fee for certain vehicles such as diesel trucks to enter dense urban areas has been successfully implemented in several cities. London introduced a congestion charge, currently a daily fee of £15 ($20.73), for driving into the city center between 7AM and 8PM. Vehicles such as buses, taxis and electric vehicles are exempt.

In its first year, the charge, which was introduced in 2003, led to a 37% increase in the number of passengers entering the congestion charging zone by bus. By 2006 the fee had reduced congestion in central London by 26% below 2002 levels. It also reduced personal injuries in the zone by up to 70%.

Jones at B-line supports a congestion-style fee and restricting access to certain vehicles in Portland. Controlling access would encourage freight companies to transfer goods to urban hubs where emissions-free vehicles could do last-mile deliveries, he argues.

Charging companies to use curb space for dropping off and picking up goods could also encourage freight-delivery services to rethink their approach. Introducing a reservation system for booking curb space could lead to less congestion.

“The public sector should price access to this space because it shouldn’t be free,” says Howell of Urbanism Next. “It is like what we are seeing with curb reservations: You have to pay to access the curb.”

During the pandemic, the Portland Bureau of Transportation created new five-minute drop-off and pick-up load zones. The bureau is looking at how it can improve its rules for using the curb.

“We know that when delivery vehicles are able to find curb space and be out of the way of bicycle lanes, it is better for reducing carbon emissions and improving safety,” says Francesca Jones, project manager for Portland Bureau of Transportation’s 2040 Portland Freight Plan. “We want to look at short-term loading opportunities and find out what is needed to shape our curb-space policies.”

Planning experts warn against making infrastructure available that discourages freight companies from changing behavior. “If you add lanes to a street, you actually increase traffic because more people will use that,” says Dalla Chiara at the Urban Freight Lab. “If you provide more space for commercial vehicles, you instead incentivize those companies to use trucks, travel more and perform more stops.”

Ultimately, freight companies will drive much of the change in the sector. Several large carriers have climate goals that will necessitate a sea change in the way they deliver.

FedEx, for example, has a goal to have carbon-neutral operations by 2040, which will result in its entire pick-up and delivery fleet consisting of zero-emissions vehicles. In 2020 the company launched bicycle operations for last-mile delivery in several locations including Toronto and a pilot in New York City.

FedEx has even developed a delivery robot, Roxo, which “holds promise to help retailers make same-day deliveries to businesses and residences using autonomous technology,” says a spokesperson. Roxo operates on sidewalks, bike lanes and roadsides, and is designed to deliver parcels within a 3- to 5-mile radius of a retailer’s location.

The freight carrier says it encourages cities to work closely with transportation providers and the entire transportation system, including freight and parcel-delivery companies, to make technologies like delivery robots feasible. “Innovations including autonomous personal delivery devices and increased adoption of electric vehicles will still require access and reliable delivery zones to operate efficiently in the urban environment,” says a FedEx spokesperson.

Amazon’s dominance of the sector means its actions will drive much of the delivery landscape. The company’s aggressive move into commercial buildings close to downtown cores, including Portland’s, is a sign of its intentions to control and shape the last-mile delivery sector.

Amazon’s extensive use of lockers, self-service kiosks where customers can pick up parcels, will likely be adopted among other carriers as an effective means of aiding last-mile delivery. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

The future of the logistics sector may appear dystopian to some, conjuring up images of shuttered retailers whose sad fate is to be converted into nondescript warehouses, and of closed-down venues that once drew crowds of thousands before internet shopping and digital entertainment took over our lives.

But the transformation of city centers to accommodate the rise of e-commerce and the changes that brings to land use and transportation systems could also herald a future of congestion-free, safer urban oases.

And as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing demands to maintain street and parking spaces for pedestrians only may be the push cities need to keep delivery trucks out of the city.